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Non-religious radicalisation: The ‘selfie’ generation of terrorists

Throughout the past two decades the words religious extremism and terrorism have become synonymous with each other as many Islamic nations resist the global pull of western secular society. Recently, however, the attacks in Europe show a different side of terrorism and radicalisation that has little to do with religious affiliation.

In the last 18 months an increasing number of studies have been conducted into the growth of foreign fighters and the origins of radicalisation amongst European youths behind the recent string of terrorist style attacks there. One of the most important of these recent studies is the Egmont paper which aimed to explore why thousands of young men volunteered to fight far away from home. What this paper found is that religion was becoming a declining factor in the decision of these youths to fight oversees. These young men and women become radicalised first through a process of socialisation in which group dynamics are more important than any sort of ideological affinity. Individuals felt frustrated usually due to feelings of inequality which lead to separation from society and a desire to join a group of like-minded people. Group think then solidified this process and usually led to personal feelings getting politicized into ‘what can I do about this’. While this process is nothing new, it is the nature of these fighters which is unique today. Today these fighters are much younger; typically 20-24 as opposed to 25-35 which was the typical age of jihadi terrorists last decade. These fighters are also recruited in very short time spans leading to fairly narrow and superficially religious thought.  These youths see terrorism as ‘fun’ and display characteristics of the so called ‘selfie-generation’. Many have criminal records, but, above all they share a sense that they do not belong in their society. These youths want to look up to heroes or be one themselves and are radicalised into IS, seeing the terrorists as ‘pop stars’. These men and women have a very basic understanding of Islam and develop a self-constructed discourse to give a semblance of justification and legitimacy in their own eyes.

Olivier Roy adds to the picture of radicalised youth finding that recent terror acts in Europe were undertaken by second generation Islamic Europeans or Europeans who have converted to Islam.  There were, however, no first or third generation jihadists. The second generation have rejected their parent’s faith and instead chosen Salafi Islam which rejects the concept of culture and allows them to reconstruct themselves. The reason neither the third or first generation Muslims in Europe are not radicalised is due to being brought up in cultural Islam or possessing an idea of how to express themselves as Muslims in secular society thanks to their parents. The second generation stand out as being on the margins of the Muslim community who care little for religious practise and devotion.

Recent examples of these youths can be seen in the two brothers who conducted the bombings in Brussels in March of this year. Both Ibrahim and Kahlid el-Bakraoui grew up in Brussels in a working class family with a father who remigrated from Morocco and a devout Muslim. The pair showed signs of rejecting their society early conducting four carjacking’s and a bank robbery in 2009. Both brothers spent time in prison where it is believed both became radicalised into conducting a more extreme attack on society. Australia too has its fair share of foreign fighters and home grown radicals who show similar patterns of radicalisation. Neil Prakash who ascended to the role of senior IS recruiter and was linked to the two teenagers accused of plotting an Anzac Day terror attack in Melbourne in 2015. Prakash is a second generation Australian with Fijian and Cambodian ancestry with no links to Islam, in fact he was a proclaimed Buddhist before travelling to Syria in 2013.  Jake Bilardi one of the youngest of such radicalised youths was not a second generation Australian but rather in search of belonging, disillusioned by the western world. Bilardi was bullied throughout school and lost his mother at age 16 before self-radicalising through reading newspapers. Bilardi also converted to Islam in the wake of his mother’s death yet he does not mention attending mosques in his manifesto on why he chose martyrdom.

These findings show us that increasingly the problem is not religious, the cause of many youths to become foreign fighters and engage in terrorist acts is more closely linked with a sense of belonging. This observation is increasingly important as we seek to stop Australians becoming radicalised and as we help those overseas combat this new age of extremism.  

Kelvin was selected for the Chief of Army Honours programme and is completing a thesis on Australian Army small unit tactics in the Korean War

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government. Further information.

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